The changing face of TV is about more than the digital switch


IT’S SWITCHOVER WEEK. You may not be able to believe that it is finally here, and that the rumble of the advancing army of RTÉ presenters will finally retreat into silence, the final echoes being whatever row blows up about it on Wednesday afternoon’s Liveline.

As of last week, 100,000 households were hunkered down in their analogue holdouts, being treated by now as unbelievers and cynics. Still, at 10.01am on Wednesday somebody, somewhere will no doubt be found thumping a fist on the top of the telly while calling out across the house, “Dammit, Mary, this thing is on the blink again!”

So the era of the fuzzy, depends-on-the-weather, television picture will die. But television is not dead. Instead we are entering an age when a particular contradiction will rule: a golden age for viewers has coincided with the end of the golden age for Irish broadcasters.

The switchover has facilitated this, pushing RTÉ into a dutiful exhortation to the entire population to go out and buy devices that, in turn, will allow them to bypass the ads broadcasters rely on.

We still watch a lot of television in this country through the old-fashioned medium of high-definition, widescreen, wall-mounted televisions. More than three and half hours a day, on average, according to the ratings company Tam. That’s more than we watched five years ago.

But Wednesday will mark the most obvious, mass shift away from the way we used to watch television: together, when it was on, and suffering through whatever ads interrupted. That is not gone – it remains the way most television is watched, and social media has helped bolster it to an extent – but it is a decreasing share of the fractured habits of the viewers, who can now pretty much watch it when they want, where they want, on whatever screen they want.

But the changing face of television doesn’t simply come through the obvious ways, such as how much is viewed through a computer screen, or via a tablet; nor in the popularity of box sets, which themselves are becoming old-fashioned after they’ve only just left their infancy. Just as curious is the way the set-top box is having an impact, notably those that record. In the industry, they go by the rather anachronistic name of Personal Video Recorders (PVR). They’re devices that bring their own contradictions.

Those with PVRs watch more television than those without – although they may be a self-selecting group inclined to watch more television anyway. Even more obviously, however, those with a recorder drift away from live television. Not entirely – not even a majority of the time – but the more recorders that are out there, the greater number of viewers who will fast-forward through the ads.

The time that people are most likely to watch timeshift television is between 9pm and 10pm on a Monday to Thursday and on Saturday, and between 8pm and 9pm on a Friday and Sunday: in other words, during peak time. Advertising is at its most expensive when people are most likely to skip through the ads.

And this has become a cross that Irish broadcasters must bear. On the one hand, digital offers opportunities to widen the number of channels and upgrade services for an era of on-demand TV. And RTÉ’s new channels are filled with reheated content, and in pushing viewers towards set-top boxes they are also pushing them towards a device that lets them skip through the ads. And in a small market, in which RTÉ especially must figure out a multitude of alternative sources of income, it must then face off against the aggressive heavyweight Sky, whose business model is built on such devices.

The winner, for the moment, is the viewer – although that victory relates to choice rather than cost. Television has become increasingly expensive, with packages piled on packages piled on contracts. Even Saorview is a misnomer. It is no freer than television ever was. The set-top box won’t be delivered by a man in a brown coat whose only request is a smile. Instead it adds charges (box, aerial, TV) for many. If it was truly free, then Sky and UPC wouldn’t have been so successful in diverting analogue refugees towards their own, more expansive – and expensive – offerings. Plus, there’s the small matter of the €160 licence.

The closest to getting “free” television, for now at least, is not to watch it on a TV but to stream from online through your tablet.

As RTÉ marks the switchover with some televised palaver on Wednesday morning, the big question will remain just what the real cost of all of this will ultimately be.


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